There was a symbolic moment inside the Sydney press box while England were homing in on their third innings victory of the series, when part of the ceiling fell down on an Australian journalist and hit him on the head. He was more shocked than hurt, given that it was only a piece of polystyrene, and he certainly ended up in better shape than the Australian cricket team, upon whom the entire roof fell in.
They’re a nice bunch, the Aussie media, but it was starting to get a bit tedious listening to them on every one of the previous five tours Down Under, on the rare occasions England had a halfway decent day. “Tt’s nice to see you guys putting up a bit of fight,” someone would invariably say, and you dearly wanted to return the compliment this time. However, even that small frisson of pleasure was denied us, thanks to Australia resolutely declining to offer anything after Perth that could be remotely described as a fight.
It’s hard to know which will linger longer in the memory. The Australian hack covered in bits of ceiling, Alastair Cook batting for almost as long as you can fly to Australia and back again, or the Barmy Army’s merciless taunting of Mitchell Johnson. Some of the England players who were here in 2006-07 had to listen to some unpleasant things, but Matthew Hayden and Shane Warne chirping away in the slips is not quite the same as having to listen to being mocked by what sounds like an entire stadium.
Australia’s Test team now looks as hopeless as England’s must have done over a century ago, when losing was regarded as such a humiliation that it gave rise to that mock obituary in the Sporting Times, and the very birth of the Ashes. Australians have always complained that the original trophy is kept under permanent lock and key at Lord’s, in which case they can perhaps commemorate this disaster by setting fire to Doug Bollinger’s rug, placing the charred remains in an urn, and putting them on display at the other MCC Museum at the Melbourne Cricket Club.
England were superior in every department, but what surprised many was how large the gulf was in the fielding. There was a time when an England 12th man making it all the way to the middle without dropping the drinks tray was almost worth a standing ovation, a long dark era in which outfielders like Phil Tufnell and Eddie Hemmings became cult figures in Australia for the kind of graceful co-ordination more closely associated with Ann Widdecombe than Rudolf Nureyev.
A Mark Waugh century, or a Shane Warne hat-trick, were fun to watch, but nothing captivated an Australian crowd more than the sight of Monty Panesar setting off in entirely the wrong direction, or circling underneath a skier like man who’s just been spun around the room in a game of blind man’s buff.
Tufnell even had a mock Fielding Academy named after him by Australian crowds, and the belief in this part of the world that a Pom rarely gets close to a bar of soap became the subject of serious re-appraisal during cricket matches, when the ball squirmed so often from an English pair of hands that it made the Aussies wonder whether it was actually red leather, or Imperial Leather.
Not any longer, though. Ricky Ponting wouldn’t be nursing a broken finger if he’d hung onto a routine slip catch, and his team’s fumbles, misfields, and squandered run-out chances amount to considerably more than the Australian captain’s batting average in this series. Ian Chappell reckoned that even when Australia lost to England, they were generally still the better fielding side, but he was “shocked” , he said, by the way the Australians were “miles behind” England in the field.
England hardly missed a thing and, if the bowling had an energy to match the Flintoff-inspired 2005 attack, it had more than a little to do with knowing that if you find the edge a wicket is more or less guaranteed. Going back to the opening morning in Adelaide, it’s difficult to guess precisely how much of an impact it had on Australian morale when Simon Katich was run out by Jonathan Trott’s direct hit, but Adelaide is not the kind of pitch on which a No. 3 batsman expects to be taking guard quite so soon, and it was an already shaken Australian captain when Ponting immediately fell to a brilliant catch from Graeme Swann.
Ponting may not have batted very well in this series, but he didn’t have much luck when he nicked one, especially in Perth, where Paul Collingwood snaffled him with one of the best catches in Ashes history. Play was held up several times at the WACA by seagulls swooping over the pitch during the bowler’s run-up, but the birds had clearly been paying attention to the game as none of them risked being plucked out of the sky by daring to enter Collingwood’s air space.
The best memory of all, though, has been the reaction of the Australian press. Before the series began, one of the newspapers ran an article headlined “Ten Reasons Why The Poms are Duds”. After Adelaide they photographed the four Australian selectors with fried eggs superimposed on their heads. After Perth, they ran an article entitled “Ten Reasons Why The Poms Are Still Duds”. And after Melbourne and Sydney, it was 100 reasons why Australia are hopeless.
The bloke catching most of the flak was the chairman of selectors, Andrew Hilditch, whose protestations that the panel had “done a very good job” mirrored Ted Dexter’s comment after the 1989 England Ashes debacle, when he said he “wasn’t aware of any errors he might have made”. Hilditch managed to avoid bringing up the alignment of planets to explain away Australia’s defeat but, all in all, he probably deserved the fried egg – Australia’s equivalent of the turnip.
As for England, they certainly have it in them – especially under such an astute character as Andy Flower – to challenge for the No. 1 ranking in Test cricket, but when you consider what a pitiful Australian team this has been, historians will scratch their heads and wonder how on earth England managed to lose a match to them.
It’s nice to revel in the moment, not least the scale of it, but don’t you think that in some ways 2005 – a close-run victory over a much stronger team – was better than crushing a hapless Australian side on their own turf? Surely you’d prefer that to giving a good hiding to a team of over-the-hill pie-chuckers that became such a laughing stock that a magazine published a photograph taken from the Muppet Show with the caption “Australia’s cricketers arriving for their flight at Sydney Airport”. You wouldn’t? No, me neither.